72 years later, the WWII WASP still fight to be recognized for their service.

by Jess Clackum

Elaine Harmon served with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II.  Below is her Honorable Discharge. She also received a DD-214, the official certificate of release or discharge from active duty, issued by the DoD upon retirement separation, or discharge from active-duty military. 

Section 1491 of Title 10, U. S. Code defines a veteran as "a decedent who served in the active military, naval, or air service," as defined in Section 101(24) of Title 38 and defines the term "active military, naval or air service" to include "active duty."

I've got an Honorable Discharge and DD-214, it means I'm a veteran. Well, Elaine Harmon is a veteran too and her family wants her ashes inurned at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC).

The ANC eligibility list clearly states, "Any former member of the Armed Forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and whose last service terminated honorably" and their website states "...most veterans, who have at least one day of active service for other than training and an Honorable Discharge, are eligible for above-ground inurnment".

This would make Elaine Harmon eligible for inurnment.

Or so you'd think.

Let's take a step back for a moment...

November 1977: Against the wishes of the American Legion and other veterans groups, and thanks to Senator Barry Goldwater, a staunch supporter of the WASP, President Carter signed Public Law 95-202, Title IV, granting the WASP veteran status with limited benefits.

Sec. 401. (a)(1) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the service of any person as a member of the Women's Air Forces Service Pilots (a group of Federal civilian employees attached to the United States Army Air Force during World War I I ) , or the service of any person in any other similarly situated group the members of which rendered service to the Armed Forces of the United States in a capacity considered civilian employment or contractual service at the time such service was rendered, shall be considered active duty for the purposes of all laws administered by the Veterans' Administration if the Secretary of Defense, pursuant to regulations which the Secretary shall prescribe—"

(A) after a full review of the historical records and all other available evidence pertaining to the service of any such group, determines, on the basis of judicial and other appropriate precedent, that the service of such group constituted active military service, and

(B) in the case of any such group with respect to which such Secretary has made an affirmative determination that the service of such group constituted active military service, issues to each member of such group a discharge from such service under honor and conditions where the nature and duration of the service of such member so warrants. Discharges issued pursuant to the provisions of the first sentence of this paragraph shall designate as the date of discharge that date, as determined by the Secretary of Defense, on which such service by the person concerned was terminated.

(2) In making a determination under clause (A) of paragraph (1) of this subsection with respect to any group described in such paragraph, the Secretary of Defense may take into consideration the extent to which—

(A) such group received military training and acquired a military capability or the service performed by such group was critical to the success of a military mission,
(B) the members of such group were subject to military justice, discipline, and control;
(C) the members of such group were permitted to resign,
(D) the members of such group were susceptible to assignment for duty in a combat zone, and
(E) the members of such group had reasonable expectations that their service would be considered to be active military service.

As you can see, there were specific criteria required in order to be classified as veteran status. The WASP and other Active Duty Designees met those requirements.

2002: The Honorable Reginald J. Brown, Assistant Secretary of the Army, Manpower and Reserve Affairs directed that Active Duty Designees which included the WASP should receive standard military honors when inurned at Arlington. (It is important to note that while the WASP underwent officer training and were treated as officers during service and as such should be afforded full honors, they are only recognized as enlisted and afforded standard burial honors.)

According to the memorandum, though it states clearly that burial and inurnment at ANC is governed by Army regulations, it also states that "While Chapter 24's burial eligibility provisions do not apply to ANC, ANC allows inurnment in the Columbarium for those who are eligible for burial at VA cemeteries, provided they received an honorable discharge." (Chapter 24 of Title 38, US Code, that governs the eligibility of veterans for burial in VA cemeteries.)

2015: Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, a civilian and lifelong politician who has never served a day in the Armed Forces, reversed the 2002 decision and ruled that the WASP and other WWII veterans classified as Active Duty Designees were no longer eligible to be inurned at ANC and that their determination of eligibility had been an error. He stated in a memo that while the DoD declared certain groups were "active duty", it was only for the purposes of "all laws administered by the Veterans Administration", that the Army is exempt because the National Cemeteries Act of 1973 places the responsibility of operating and maintaining Arlington under the Secretary of the Army, not the VA.

In an ironic twist, the WASP and other Active Duty Designees remain eligible for standard honors at Arlington---even though they can no longer be inurned there.

The Army states that requests for exceptions to its policies will be evaluated using the following:

a. A decedent’s specific military service (contributions and acts) that directly and substantially benefited the United States military.

b. A decedent’s specific civilian service (contributions and acts) that directly and substantially benefited the United States military, and which demonstrates the manner and level of sacrifice or heroism typical of military service.

c. Finally, whether the decedent’s combined military and civilian service presents extraordinary circumstances that justify approving an exception to the policy.

d. The degree to which a decedent meets eligibility standards for interment or inurnment.

e. The degree of consistency with past decisions.

f . The potential impact of a decision, as precedent, for future requests of like circumstance or degree.

Is the Army concerned about space? Even though they have not cited that as a reason to deny the WASP. While it's true that thousands of individuals made up the 37 groups of Active Duty Designees, with the Merchant Marine being the largest at around 250,000, how many are even left? And how many want to be buried at Arlington? The VA reports WWII veterans are dying at a rate of about 430 per day and of the 16 million who served there are less than 800,000 left. In two years it will be less than half that number. By 2036 they will all be gone. 

That said, at some point, space at Arlington will be an issue. And they will have to resolve it. But denying the WASP, veterans whose numbers are right around 100 now, isn't the way to do it.

Elaine Harmon and her fellow WASP served their country bravely and honorably. They underwent extensive military training, lived a military lifestyle, were subject to military discipline and rules, and supported and participated in dangerous military missions (38 of them died in the line of duty).

The Harmon family should not have to circulate a petition (which has over 150,000 signatures to date). They should not have to plead their case in the media. They should not have to pound on the doors of members of Congress for support. They should not have to fight to get their beloved mother and grandmother recognized as a veteran when she has already been designated a veteran. How many times do we have to play this stupid game?

Meanwhile, as this fight goes on, Elaine Harmon's ashes rest in a box in her daughter's closet, waiting for a permanent home. Elaine's family, especially her granddaughter Erin Miller, advocate tirelessly on behalf of Elaine and the WASP, telling their story to the world.  Erin is determined to stay strong and resilient, stating proudly, "My grandmother wouldn't give up on us and we won't give up on her."

For too long, the legitimacy of the WASP service to our country has been debated and questioned. The time has come to end it once and for all. 

For Elaine Danforth Harmon 44-W-9

December 26, 1919 - April 21, 2015